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Thursday, 5 April 1973
Page: 1206

Mr KERIN (Macarthur) - -I propose to speak on the need for a maximum security veterinary laboratory in Australia. I asked a question of the Minister for Health (Dr Everingham) on Tuesday of this week and I am encouraged by his interest in this matter. My question supplemented one asked last week by the honourable member for Patterson (Mr O'Keefe). I consider this matter to be one of the most important issues facing Australian agriculture. There are many major livestock diseases exotic to Australia which, if introduced, could have devastating consequences for our livestock industries and for the economy in general. The quarantine service operated by the Commonwealth Department of Health has so far proved a remarkably effective barrier against the accidental introduction of these diseases, but no quarantine service, however efficient, can hope to provide forever an absolute guarantee against their entry. With the rapidly increasing sea and air traffic between Australia and the rest of the world, the risk of exotic diseases penetrating our quarantine barrier must inevitably grow stronger each year.

Although a number of exotic diseases have considerable potential for harming our livestock industries, Australia has most reason to fear foot and mouth disease and blue tongue. The effect of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease on livestock production would be seriously damaging and its effect on trade would be disastrous. Much of our overseas trade in livestock products would be brought to a standstill overnight. Moreover, the suspension of trade would remain not merely until the disease was eradicated but until such time as Australia was able to prove this to the complete satisfaction of its trading partners.

We can roughly quantify the potential losses in monetary terms. Australia's 150 million sheep, representing an investment of $5,000m and ah annual income of $ 1,000m, plus or minus, are particularly at risk with respect to blue tongue. The insect which spreads the disease is present and all that is needed is the virus which could kil] 50 per cent of our flock. Our beef cattle industry is now worth $2,000m and our dairy industry not much less. The United States of America is our main beef market and in the absence of any other evidence, the United States would normally require that a country remain free of foot and mouth disease for some years before resuming imports from that country. If the worst came to the worst, a maximum security diagnostic laboratory would reduce this period.

In the event of a major exotic disease entering Australia, veterinary authorities would be severely handicapped by the absence in this country of a laboratory with a great enough degree of microbiological security to enable highly infectious material to be handled without any danger of the disease agent escaping and causing further outbreaks. Such facilities, which exist in all of the countries constituting the principal export markets for our livestock products, can play an important role in the initial diagnosis and are absolutely essential for the enormous amount of diagnostic work associated with eradication campaigns. Should vaccination be adopted for control and eradication, maximum security facilities would be essential for testing and potency and safety of the vaccines used. Moreover, if it became necessary to vaccinate livestock against foot and mouth disease, maximum security facilities would be required for both the production and the testing of a suitable vaccine.

Although eradication may be achieved in a matter of days or weeks, an extensive testing program would be required for some considerable time afterwards in order to demonstrate that the disease had been eradicated. This testing can be carried out only in a maximum security laboratory. The Department of Health is currently investigating the establishment of a quarantine station on Norfolk Island so that livestock can be imported into Australia to improve the productivity of our animal industries. If the station is to draw livestock from countries where diseases such as foot and mouth, rinderpest and blue ton gue are endemic, separate maximum security laboratory facilities must also be provided in which special tests can be carried out to ensure that livestock held at the station is completely free from exotic diseases before being allowed entry to Australia.

A maximum security laboratory would, in addition to facilitating the importation of livestock and acting as an insurance against the introduction of exotic diseases, provide a valuable and much needed facility for research on virus diseases already endemic in Australia. Research on these viruses; several of which affect man as well as livestock, has been hampered to date by a lack of a maximum security laboratory. Because of the inadequacy of our knowledge of endemic diseases, virologists would in many situations be unable to differentiate quickly between an endemic and an exotic disease. Any such delay in diagnosis could have severe economic repercussions. If time permits, 1 will expand on what I have said on the functions of diagnosis, vaccination, vaccine production, testing and research.

The rapid detection and diagnosis of an exotic disease can be the single most vital factor in its successful control and eradication. Once a disease is suspected in the field it must be confirmed in the laboratory. Australian laboratories currently hold diagnostic reagents for a very limited number of exotic diseases, including Newcastle disease and swine fever. But in most cases confirmation of a field diagnosis cannot be made in Australia. Since vaccination may be necessary at some stage of a control or eradication cam.pign, it is important that the diagnosis reveals not only the virus responsible for the disease but also the type or strain of the virus. For example, 16 different types of blue tongue virus and 7 types of foot and mouth disease virus have been identified so far. The picture is further complicated by the fact that the 7 foot and mouth disease virus types can be subdivided into at least 80 different subtypes.

At present Australia is entirely dependent on the Animal Virus Research Institute at Pirbright in England for any diagnoses of foot and mouth disease. As the world reference laboratory for foot and mouth disease, Pirbright receives from all over the world specimens from animals suspected of having been infected by the disease. As a result, foot and mouth disease virus types not present within England or Europe are investigated at the institute. Other arrangements exist whereby Australia can have specimens of suspected rinderpest examined at the United States Department of Agriculture's Plum Island Animal Disease Laboratory and specimens of suspected blue tongue and African horse sickness examined by the Division of Veterinary Services at Onderstepoort, South Africa. There are many other exotic diseases which have to be diagnosed overseas, however, where there are less firm responsibilities. In these instances there have been very serious delays. For example, a suspected Newcastle disease-like virus isolated in Australia in 1968 was confirmed in the United States only after several months delay. By comparison, the CSIRO Division of Animal Health, because it possessed the necessary diagnostic reagents, was able to confirm the diagnosis in 12 hours. Material from a suspected outbreak of rinderpest from Papua New Guinea was immediately incinerated on arrival at an African diagnostic laboratory because at that time they had begun to make rinderpest vaccine from attenuated strains and could not permit virulent virus into the laboratory. Uncertainties and delays in diagnosis as a result of dependence on other countries are no longer tolerable.

Livestock can be rendered immune to most, but not all exotic diseases by vaccination. Although vaccination of susceptible animals might sometimes be used to help eradicate an exotic disease, it would, in most instances, be used as a control measure only when eradication measures proved unsuccessful. For example, if an outbreak of foot and mouth disease was detected in Victoria before it had much of an opportunity to spead, there would be a good chance that an extensive slaughtering campaign would eradicate the disease. If, on the other hand, an outbreak occurred in northern Australia, it might be some time before it was detected. It might then be so firmly entrenched that it would be necessary to try to confine the outbreak within a buffer area in which all susceptible livestock were vaccinated prior to eventual slaughter for eradication. However, the chances of eradicating an insect transmitted disease such as bluetongue once it entered the country would be remote and a policy of control by vaccination would then be necessary. This is the disease that threatens 1 50 million sheep.

The Commonwealth Serum Laboratories is currently building high security not maximum security facilities that will enable it to produce live attenuated vaccines for use against a number of exotic diseases including bluetongue in the event of their entering the country. These facilities will not be suitable, however, for the production of foot and mouth disease vaccine since this involves handling large quantities of live, highly virulent virus. Because of the risks involved, only maximum security facilities can be used for foot and mouth disease vaccine production. At present the only place in the world where Australia could have an acceptable foot and mouth disease vaccine prepared to combat the outbreak would be at Pirbright, England. Too much reliance should not be placed on the availability of these facilities.

If the laboratory is to deal effectively with any exotic disease that might be introduced, it needs to be manned by a permanent team of highly trained and highly competent virologists who are well versed in security procedures. The only satisfactory way of ensuring the presence of a team of the calibre required would be for the laboratory to engage in research. This would also mean that the laboratory, which would represent a considerable capital investment - some estimates go as high as S30m - would be used effectively at all times. I believe that a study on some of the matters I have mentioned will soon be completed. I trust that we will act to ensure that Australia has a maximum security veterinary laboratory and avoid potential disaster.

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